How Ainsley Harriott really eats

Welcome back to Fridge Raid, the delicious. interview series where people from all walks of life answer our nosiest food questions. Each week, we ask people to reveal the quirky realities of how they really eat – and the food experiences that shaped them.

Our guest this week is food legend Ainsley Harriott, one of the all-time-great TV chefs. He’s been exploring the kitchen gardens of three historic properties – Cambridgeshire’s Wimpole Estate, Tyntesfield in Somerset and Norfolk’s Blickling Estate – for new ITV series Ainsley’s National Trust Cook Off. Each episode, two guest chefs compete to create a winning dish using the gardens’ produce – judged by National Trust volunteers.

Ainsley shares how he likes his eggs (you’ll never guess), memories of his mother’s veg patch and what keeps him excited after 30 years on our screens…

How Ainsley Harriott really eats
Portrait: Rob Partis

Pick ‘n’ mix

What do you eat for breakfast?
I like a nice slice of sourdough toast, butter and a good homemade marmalade with my morning cup of coffee. My weekend favourite is sweetcorn fritters with a poached egg, crispy streaky bacon and a dash of hot sauce when I feel a bit spicy – I’m always making them for friends or family.

How do you like your eggs?
In the morning!

What would be your ideal birthday cake?
One made by Lola Brandelli, a home economist I work with. She’s a natural baker: name your flavour and she’ll whizz up an exquisite and stunning-looking cake in a flash.

What did young Ainsley like to eat?
Anything my mum made for us: she was a great home cook. Her stews with rice and peas were so comforting and delicious. I liked a fairy cake too – coconut and lime were my favourite.

Sweetcorn fritters are a weekend staple at Ainsley’s


The main meal

What’s it been like to collaborate with the National Trust for your new series?
The beauty of visiting these amazing National Trust establishments was experiencing the detail that goes into preserving them… You can understand why people love visiting these places, because they are not just gardens, they’re a sanctuary where nature meets community.

During the series, people will be able to see, for example, how the gardeners place doors to create a flow of air to help the growth of plants or vegetables. There’s a lot of fascinating detail – it’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland! Everywhere that we cooked, in all the different locations, we had amazing kitchen gardens. We brought along the equipment – barbecue grills, outdoor pizza ovens and so on – and it was wonderful, because it just brought the kitchen into the gardens. To be able to pick produce out of the ground 50 yards away from where you’re actually cooking… Well, it just makes you feel good.

You’ve presented lots of programmes exploring other countries’ cuisines; what was special about cooking alfresco in the UK, with local produce?
For me, it’s the freshness of it. When I was growing up, you had to go down to your local market or store where the potatoes and carrots were muddy and everything had a little bit of soil on it! But it was natural. Cyrus Todiwala is one of the guest chefs on the programme and said that it was the first time he had ever pulled an onion from the ground and then cooked it. There was a genuine excitement from him and I knew exactly what he meant.

My mother was really green fingered and so I know what it was like to have beans and lettuce growing, also corn and courgettes… Even until her dying day, she still had a little vegetable patch in her back garden. She used to say, ‘above the ground, you put it in hot water and below the ground, you put it in cool water.’ It’s wonderful for the viewers to see, as a lot of kids today think that meat, fruit and vegetables come from a fridge in the supermarket – they don’t really see the source and there’s something quite exciting about it.

Ainsley embraces cooking outdoors


You’re a TV chef legend. What has your career in the media given you that a traditional restaurant chef career perhaps couldn’t? Why did you choose this path?
I started my career as a restaurant chef and I think the path chose me rather than the other way round – when I was head chef at Lord’s Cricket Ground I was asked to present a BBC Radio show and things took off from there. I’ve worked at every level of the catering business which I think has worked in my favour for TV – you have to be on your toes as you never know what will happen, especially when filming live. There’s more freedom to express myself in what I do now and, of course, I get to travel for work. It also allows me to perform to an audience which I think is a big part of what cooking is about – the enjoyment and sharing it with others.

"In TV, you have to be on your toes as you never know what will happen, especially when filming live"

What keeps you excited about working in food?
The people. Whether it’s passionate chefs, home cooks, food producers or people in the street, it’s always a joy to share the experience with others and that keeps it exciting and fun. Of course, I’ve also been lucky to visit some beautiful locations, so discovering new places and learning about local food is always exciting for me.

In your previous ITV series, you visited Malta. What was the best thing you ate there?
It’s difficult to name just one thing – the flaky pastizzi (pastries) are a fabulous treat, but I also got to eat at some fantastic restaurants. The fish carpaccio at Tartarun in Marsaxlokk was so delicate and divine and I really enjoyed a lunch at Gracy’s Arts and Supper Club in Valetta.

I knew to expect home cooked, seasonal and rustic delights like stuffed vegetables, fish and meat stews, but the recipes are often elevated to brilliant, modern dishes and the local produce, such as the Maltese cheese, is fantastic. There are six Michelin-starred restaurants in Malta, which is quite a lot for a small island.

You met lots of interesting characters in Malta. Who made the most impact?
I met so many great people, but I loved meeting Rita Diacono and visiting her home kitchen. Rita is a cooking legend on the island and many of her children and grandchildren have grown up to be award-winning chefs and restaurateurs. Her son Michael cooked me a fantastic rabbit stew, the national dish of Malta.

My bite-sized week

What was the best thing you ate this week?
I had a great meal at Mountain restaurant in Soho – lots of wonderful smoky flavours.

What was the most mundane meal you ate?
A bacon sandwich with ketchup – although it was tasty.

Did you cook a meal off the cuff?
Well, I did make a quick and delicious dinner involving one of my new Flavour Bomb pastes…

What food/drink did you buy on the go?
A cup of coffee and a croissant from my local bakery.

And what did you do to relax?
I took my lovely dog, Bobby, for a walk on the common.


Ainsley’s new 10-part series Ainsley’s National Trust Cook Off started on Saturday 18 May; watch live on ITV at 11.40am on Saturdays and catch up on ITVX.

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